~4200 words, approx 28 minutes reading time
Ruth stood in the shade of the farmhouse, drinking coffee and watching a hare pick its way between the rows of peas in the garden. It lifted its nose, tested the air. She could have fired from here, but she preferred to save the shot. God had granted her the gift of patience–though He’d been less than forthcoming with regards to the price.
Well, darlin’? asked the ghost in the spook gun at Ruth’s hip. Death had never yet hammered flat the teasing lilt to her voice, nor sanded smooth its hoarseness. You going to shoot, or not?
Most of the fields stood empty since Abraham passed on, except for the back acres she rented out to the Holmbergs to graze their cattle. Ruth had sold all her oxen and the horses, save one. The farm was too much for one woman alone. The garden got her through the lean times, in between laundry outwork and mending, when it wasn’t picked over by pests, at least.
The pearl grip caressed her palm. Holding the spook gun felt more like being held. If she had it in her hand too long or slept with it beside her bed, Ruth’s thoughts and the ghost’s blurred at the edges and ran together like mud. We’d rule this state together, you and I, laughed Queen Minnie–a name the ghost had stolen, just like everything else she’d ever wanted, taken it all by guile and grace at first and sheer bloodthirsty force in the end. ‘Sides, what you’re playing at here won’t work. You won’t get rid of me so easy as that. And you don’t want to. Do you?
All the long days, the gun sang sweet songs of riding hard and living harder, of leaving behind a rainbow trail of bloodied bodies and golden coin. Ruth was a farmer’s widow and washerwoman, never made for that kind of life. But the gun sometimes, the gun and its ghost, made her think she wanted to be. It was growing harder and harder to tell it–to tell herself–no.
Ruth rotated through the cylinder: six identical lead-gray eyes stared back at her from the cartridges. One of Abraham’s more useful bequests: several boxes of unused ammunition. She crouched to set the tin cup of coffee soundlessly on the porch.
The gun’s laugh was a gnat brushing her ear. Don’t miss now.
Ruth sighted along the gun. The hare lifted its head, looking through Ruth, not at her. Its ears lifted, but the white flag of its tail stayed down. It was so close. A little closer and she could have leaned over to stroke its dun-brown pelt.
She didn’t need a pet and she didn’t need meat for the evening’s stew. But she needed a life to replace the one the spook gun held: a small life, a quiet one, whose hunger would never reach for gold or glory. An equal trade, though hardly a fair one.
“Goodbye, Minnie,” she whispered, and fired.
The hare bolted. It got a few yards before it figured out it was dead, and it screamed like a wounded woman for a spell after that. Its head went down first, back legs driving it hard into the ground. Its shoulder dug a divot from the dry soil as it jerked along. Then it went down hard among Ruth’s potatoes and did not rise again.
Ruth’s head rang clear as church bells with another woman’s mirth. Now what did I tell you?
The gun caught when Ruth tried to slide it back into its holster. Only reluctantly did it resign itself to the shallow sleep of its sheath. She sat on the front step and steadied her hands on the tin cup.
A spook gun held on tight to the last soul it had killed. No soulless beast alive would take Queen Minnie’s place. Ruth gulped coffee, her mouth sifting the coarse grounds at the bottom from the tepid liquid. All the more fool, for thinking she could dislodge such a fearsome woman so easily.
The rain is driving down, down, and Ruth still has the gun in her hand, the dying bandit queen’s own spook gun. She stands over the bleeding woman with the faint urine smell of the gun smoke still clinging to her mouth. They’ll sing ballads about her for this one, “The Death of Queen Minnie”; they’ll paint Ruth’s name across on the banners of the Wild West traveling shows, and embroider false bright colors to sew her story into the pages of the Chicago Tribune. They’ll make a hero of her.
When you make a murderer of yourself, they have to make you either a hero or a villain.
Black blood bubbles up from the bandit queen’s mouth and the storm washes it away just as fast: two forces of nature, unevenly matched. She’s trying to say something. The rain scrubs that away, too.
An open saddlebag has spilled at her side, silver ingots, more than Ruth could carry at one go, and Ruth’s no delicate lady. Ruth’s mouth fills with vomit.
She can’t let go of the gun. Not even when the nickel goes colder than ice and the shine leaves the dead woman’s eyes. Not even when borrowed laughter peals hysterically in the back of her mind.
Especially not then.
Ruth cleaned the house from top to bottom, more thoroughly than she had in years. She swept out all three rooms: the kitchen and the bedroom and the little room beside it that Abraham hadn’t lived long enough to build a cradle for. She scrubbed the chamber pot and threw lime all about the summer-stagnant outhouse. A pair of the blacksmith’s shirts, starched and hot-pressed, hung inside the door, and a dress belonging to his pretty daughter, who always had a smile for Ruth when she picked up or dropped off the laundry. The last of the mending she’d taken in for the Ludvigs sat in a basket just below. They’d paid in full, after all.
Now, now, cajoled Queen Minnie. Let’s go for a ride. Let’s go for a drink. Talk this all through. You ain’t the type to do something hasty. Come on now, widow-woman, don’t tell me you’re not hungry for a second chance at this life. I can give you a chance like that. I can give you so much!
What did you do with a gun that stained your dreams scarlet? That promised you whatever you wanted, so long as you were willing to reach out and seize it and never let go though your fingers broke and your nails splintered?
You couldn’t hide that gun somewhere and simply hope no one ever found it. It would always call out to be held–even if it liked Ruth’s hand best of all. You couldn’t trust it to the depths of a well or to the silent worms of the soil. Whoever found it next might be weaker than you. Whoever found it next might listen when the gun sang a siren song of riches and rampage; might bend their knee when the gun beckoned.
You couldn’t turn it against someone worse than Minnie, well though they might deserve a pearl-and-nickel prison. Hard enough to say no to Minnie. The next one, the worse one, might find a tune that jerked harder at the puppet-strings in your heart.
And you couldn’t turn it against someone better. That wouldn’t be right. That wouldn’t be just. The only people who deserved a spook’s fate were those who couldn’t be trusted with it.
In her room, Ruth changed into her second-finest dress: no sense in spoiling the best one. Her braid went up around her head, pinned in place; a crown scented with cheap lye-and-tallow soap. Aren’t you a pretty one, Minnie crooned, in the secret spaces of her skull. Aren’t you just the finest thing?
When she went outside under the noonday sun, the spook gun went with her. It went everywhere she did. She moved the rocking chair off the porch and down into the yard, and sat. Not a cloud muffled the sapphire sky; she squinted into the blazing sun.
You’re more than this. You’re better. A note of begging honed Minnie’s voice to sharpness. Not so queenly now. I’d show you how to be the best of them. You’re a young woman yet! We could set Missouri blazing, you and I. Anything you want, I’ll take it. Make it yours.
Ruth set the revolver in her lap. It was heavy; she’d refilled the chamber that she’d emptied into the hare. The weight of all six bullets deepened the dent in her skirt, pressed against her inner thigh.
If you wouldn’t turn the spook gun against someone better, and you couldn’t turn it against someone worse … well. Who did that leave, but a widow with nothing to lose and a good deal to make up for?
The gun kissed her lips with a cool metal tang. It tasted like blood. Like it knew what it was for.
Angle it up, now. Toward your brain.
That was Minnie again, thoughts thick with–disgust. Dread? “Are you afraid to meet your Maker, Minnie?”
I made myself, Minnie snarled, smashing against the walls of Ruth’s skull. Then she receded back down to an itch that Ruth could never quite scratch. If you’re going to do this, make it quick and easy. Don’t go drowning us slow in your own blood.
Ruth closed her eyes and inhaled the gun’s sulfurous breath. Its muzzle struck the roof of her mouth, and she gagged. Though her arm trembled in protest, her finger snaked around the trigger. All she had to do now was pull–just pull—
She stopped fighting the spook gun’s terrible weight. It fell softly into her lap, her finger still laced through the trigger guard.
Her eyes had stayed dry, as if they’d known all along she couldn’t do it.
You done right, Ruth, the ghost whispered, an invisible breath on Ruth’s neck. That’s a girl.
There’s only Minnie and Ruth in Ruth’s little kitchen, but Minnie makes it feel like she’s holding court. A stained bandana sits on her temples like a crown. She swaggers around the table where Ruth sits, eating Ruth’s biscuits and butter, talking with her mouth full.
Ruth’s hands are beneath the table. She squeezes them around a fistful of apron. She watches the bandit queen out of the corner of her eye–the same way a body studies the sun, wary of getting burned. You need to look up, then you look at the corona. Never full on.
Queen Minnie lifts the tin ladle from the pail and puts it straight to her lips. Water follows the deep, hard channels in her neck and soaks into the open collar of her shirt. She’s dirty from the road and where the water goes it leaves behind streaks of mud.
Outside, the wind shifts. Water spills on the floor when Minnie’s hand falls to her holster. The ladle does a lazy flip through the air and lands between her feet a moment later. For a moment, nothing moves. Minnie strokes the pearl grips with one thumb. Then the alarm flits from her face, not leaving its shadow to show where it’s been.
In spite of Ruth’s silence, or because of it, Minnie has hardly stopped talking since the moment she walked through the farmhouse door and told Ruth she needed water and good grazing for her horse. “I’ll pay you handsomely,” she’d said, with an evaluating smirk.
Ruth doesn’t know yet what kind of currency will be extended, but Minnie has been declaiming the gilded secrets of the ghost in her gun. When she’s done with him, she’ll make herself another ghost, she says, one with a good eye for horseflesh this time maybe, or maybe somebody who knows how to crack those Wells Fargo safes. Minnie swings her hips from side to side as she walks, so that Ruth can’t miss the gun’s pearly shine. She’ll remember that later: how clean the gun is, worn by this woman made of sweat and earth and Lucifer’s own pride.
“And this son of a bitch,” Minnie went on, patting her holster again, “killed the rest of his crew. That way, he thought, he was gonna be the only one who knew where the silver was hid. But I killed him.” She sits on the table in front of Ruth, so that Ruth is forced to stare at the crook of her elbow. It’s bare, sleeve rolled up nearly to her shoulder. Tendons twist and shift beneath the skin; nothing hidden there, flesh so close to the surface that Ruth breathes through her mouth so she can’t convince herself she smells blood and lymph. “Can you imagine so much coin all in one place? Now what could you contrive to do with it all?”
With money in her pocket, Ruth could buy train fare back to Cincinnati, visit her mother and brothers. Sit at her mother’s table and eat mutton on bread; soft brown bread, not the tart sourdough to which she’s become accustomed. Wash dishes in the good big sink and carry the bright clean scent of Castile soap on her hands the rest of the day.
“Buy better soap,” she says.
Queen Minnie throws back her head and laughs. The faint shimmer of a scar wraps her throat like a necklace: a rope burn, maybe, as if some fool thought a hang knot could hold this woman down. “You dream too small! Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to do it right? Way he tells it, there’s enough silver there to put a coin to every star in the sky.” Her smile softens against the pull of whatever pain she’s scoffed away. “I’d buy you rivers of soap, though. If that’s what you wanted. And if you asked real pretty.”
Ruth’s hands have crept from her lap to the edge of the table. Red hands, cracked and rough with the work, soil tattooed deep into the cuticles. “He’s probably lying to you. About how much there is, or how to find it.” A splinter jumps up to nip her, when she runs her fingers against the grain. “If he’s as much of a son of a bitch as you say he was.” And, she thinks, if he knows that Minnie plans to dispose of him in favor of a new haunt as soon as his value is paid out.
“Oh, no. Don’t you know nothing?” Minnie’s eyes are honey-brown, and they pour over Ruth just as sweet and slow. “Spooks don’t lie, darlin’, and that’s God’s honest truth.”
Outside the house, the floorboard creaks. Minnie explodes in motion: drawing the spook gun in one hand, throwing her free arm in front of Ruth. She fires twice and, by the time Ruth realizes that there is a man in her house, there is a dead man in her house.
Minnie stalks over and stands astride him. Then she cants her head to the side–listening for more? No, she bends low with a paroxysm of laughter. “Oh, isn’t he just mad,” she gasps. “You think I’m going down to the first two-bit joe who heard I got something shiny in my back pocket? Revenge don’t come so cheap as that.”
She strides back to Ruth while the wood of the floor is still drinking down blood. Ruth’s legs slide wider apart. When Queen Minnie straddles her in the kitchen chair, her mouth is open. Minnie’s lips crush hers, and she breathes down the smell of the air after a long, hard rain.
Ruth couldn’t sleep anymore without the gun close by: on the empty pillow opposite, or furrowing deep into the counterpane. But whenever she lay down with it, it whispered of things other than sleep.
It rattled the bars of her sleepless thoughts until she could stand it no more. She twisted her fingers around a knot of skirt and ground it against her groin. Her hips rose up to meet her, heels pressing the mattress’s thin tick all the way down to the ropes beneath. When she imagined Minnie’s touch, she imagined it this way, hard and fast and desperate. Always afraid the moment would go slack at the report of a stranger’s gun. Or the call of the road, of her ghost and his silver, throwing ash on the fire in Minnie’s eyes.
Abraham had reached for her regular as clockwork, dutiful, diligent. He’d never known how to touch her the way she wanted; though his body had asked sometimes, hers had never known just how to answer, or if it should. He’d promised to take care of her always, until the lockjaw had taken care of him.
Minnie had handled Ruth like she handled the spook gun: grabbing for her at the sudden break of a breathless moment, caressing pale shoulders and hips like she caressed the pearl handle. Parting her with the stroke of a thumb as easy as nudging the hammer from single-action to double.
Ruth had loved a good man and a bad woman and it was hard, from here, to see the difference. Either way, she was left to sleep alone.
Come on, crooned the gun, from the table beside the bed. In the fermenting mix of memory and desire, the gun became both lover and beloved, it was Minnie and it was Ruth too, no walls left between subject and object, pursued and pursuer. Come, my darlin’. I want you to sing for me again, like you used to do …
The moment dried up. Ruth sat up on the bed, alone, with cooling sweat prickling the back of her nightdress. The spook gun haunted all her memories of Minnie. How could it not, forever by her side, forever bearing up the weight of her restless searching hand? Forever ready to shrill its retort to those who would have parted it from its owner–
–Minnie explodes in motion: drawing the spook gun in one hand–
Ruth closed her eyes, fixing the image against the darkness beneath her lashes. “It’s not the gun,” she said, and Minnie’s silence rings church-bell-clear in her head. Minnie had shot that man dead without dislodging the soul she’d already trapped. “It’s not just the gun.”
The heavy case shoved under the bed dug deep grooves into the planks when she pulled it clear. Inside, fingers of tarnished silver gleamed weakly, too shy now to boast of their worth.
She’s awake without knowing why, eyes slicing through the shadows for a scrap of light to see by. She breathes, and there’s a thousand pounds of dark on her chest to smother her. The bed is empty; she’s alone. For a moment’s stillness, she listens for the familiar creak of a step on the porch boards.
Barnacles of dried sleep still cling to her eyes, her thoughts too. Widow woman, some of the men in town are forever calling after her, you still sleeping alone? Slow down, missus, I’d keep your bed warm–sweat in their beards, grabbing their crotches, laughing at her, laughing. She rolls from the bed, legs a-tangle in the bedclothes. Crushes a posy of Wild Sweet William laid gentle on the pillow–but she won’t know that till the red hateful morning comes. The hard curve of the spook gun rises to meet her hand against the counterpane. She seizes it, instead of the rifle in the corner. Not a thought as to its provenance. Checks the chambers. Only one bullet, bright-shining silver, too new for tarnish. She doesn’t stop to question the precious metal; one bullets better than none.
She trips on a saddlebag without seeing it for what it is. The kitchen door is open, someone’s out in the yard. A shaft of moonlight marks him out like God’s own avenging angel. “Stop!” Ruth cries. The gun lifts, points. Her finger kisses the trigger.
In the broken second between the gun’s thunder and its lightning strike, she recognizes Minnie’s face beneath the broad-brimmed hat. A strange man is laughing, too close against her ear. She ignores him, starts running. The gun slaps her thigh with each step.
The moon slides behind the clouds, and the man’s taunts fade.
They passed a companionable month together, Ruth and Minnie, speaking little, saying goodbye in deep pools of silence rather than a shallow sprinkle of words. Then, on a sunny Tuesday, as Ruth drove the wagon into town to swap out clean laundry for soiled and mended shirts for torn, the blacksmith hailed her with a shout.
He had the package he’d sent out for her. The box was bigger than she’d expected, its paper wrapping stamped with the name of a silversmith in St. Louis. She tore it open in the soot-and-sweat heat of the forge, and found two dozen bullets–each engraved on the back of the case with the silversmith’s sign, too.
Shoot him, suggested the gun cheerfully, and Ruth’s hand went to her heavy apron pocket. It wasn’t loaded, thank God, but that didn’t stop Minnie. Cheaper than paying him. Don’t have to shoot to kill if that puts a crimp in your belly. Just take the money in his apron and a couple of good steel core knives and maybe a kiss from that pretty daughter of his.
“I don’t need so much as all that,” she said, for Minnie and the blacksmith alike, though her eyes did cast around for a glimpse of that pretty daughter. She thanked the smith kindly all the same and passed him an ingot for his trouble.
Back at the farm, she sat down on the porch. One silver bullet slipped neatly into its chamber, and she rested the gun in her lap. One silver bullet, to silence the silver laughter in her head. “I thought,” she said, “that spooks didn’t lie.”
Half a truth ain’t the same as a whole lie.
“Isn’t it though?” It was a good cloudless day, fine bright light she could have been sewing by. Staring out into the sun-beaten yard raised tears in her eyes. “Isn’t it?”
You don’t really want me to go.
“Now there’s another half-truth,” Ruth said, and half-smiled to match it. “But you’ve got to. Judgment Day comes for all of us, sooner or later.”
Ha. You’re a praying woman, aren’t you? You pray for me there’s no hanging-trees in Heaven, now.
The pearl and nickel warmed under Ruth’s hand and the insistent press of the sun. Silence would serve her best now, but she was bread on the rise, half-formed, and the leavening breathed out a question. “Why are you so keen to stay in there?”
Why? Minnie scoffed. You forget what a hard life you got here? When you pick me up, I can count the cracks in your fingers. When you lay down to sleep, I feel every crick of your back. Your footsteps echo in that empty old house, and it’s not the way it should have been. The dam of righteous rage cracked, and sorrow flooded through. We should’ve been two queens together: diamonds and hearts. We still could be, Ruth, if you keep me close and point me true. You could take whatever you wanted as easy as setting eyes on it.
“I took you.” Ruth’s eyes tracked a doe, picking its way along the edge of the field. She sighted along the back of the revolver. The doe moved slowly, drawing closer all the while. “Didn’t need a gun for that.”
Silence. Then: no. I suppose you didn’t, at that. A laugh, silver-bright. You could’ve had more though. Wouldn’t you just look a picture in an honest-to-God crown?
The image blossomed in Ruth’s eyes, but there was no pull to it, no barbs to catch the soft flesh of her desire. She breathed out slowly through her mouth. “Goodbye, Minnie.”
Goodbye, darlin’. Goodbye.
When the doe stopped kicking, the spook gun went cold in Ruth’s hand. After that, it stayed silent.
She buried the doe between Abraham and Minnie, without skinning or dressing it first–it didn’t seem right. The gun, too, beneath the velvet of its flank. The shovel slid without complaint into the soft spring soil; the work went fast, though Ruth found herself looking over her shoulder often.
After, she hauled water for a bath. She didn’t lay long in the tin tub, not with the cold water sucking bloodlessly at her skin. She dressed as quickly as she could, feeling invisible eyes on her naked flesh. In bed she lay with dry alert eyes, listening. For the scuff of a foot in the dirt. For a creak of the porch’s floorboards. A borrowed alertness. She could live with that, the rest of her days. She’d have to.
In the morning, she ate biscuits with butter, and nestled the remainder of the batch in a good big basket with a jar of preserves. She put on her best dress, the yellow calico with the drop sleeves, and put the laundry and mending and the basket in the wagon. She had clean shirts for the gentleman who ran the bank. That wasn’t so far, after all, from the shop where the blacksmith worked, and where his pretty, smiling daughter lived, and a pair of fine strapping sons too. Maybe she had dreamed too small for too long. There was, after all, room for a whole world of dreams whose scope fell somewhere between glorious gunfights and good soap.
Ruth checked her reflection in the shine of the preserves jar and sent up a brief prayer for the sin of vanity. God knew she had paid dearly enough for the gift of patience. She was done waiting now.
Aimee Ogden is a former science teacher and software tester; now she writes stories about sad astronauts and angry princesses. Her other work has appeared in magazines such as Clarkesworld, Analog, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and her novellas “Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters” and “Local Star” debuted in 2021 from Tor.com and Interstellar Flight Press respectively. She also co-edits the magazine Translunar Travelers Lounge, a venue for fun and optimistic speculative fiction.
Author of “Queen Minnie’s Last Ride”
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I recently finished “When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain”, by Nghi Vo, which is the sequel to her earlier novella “Empress of Salt and Fortune”–both books are so gorgeously written, and at novella length, they fly by, but still feel as packed full of detail and story as a novel. Bennett North and I also published another issue of Translunar Travelers Lounge in February and if I had to pick just one story to get people hyped about reading the rest, I would choose Vanessa Fogg’s “Fanfiction for a Grimdark Universe“!